With just a fortnight until the Turnbull Government hands down its first budget since being re-elected, the peak body representing Australian universities has come out swinging at the Federal Government’s flagged $3.7 billion cuts to university funding.
In a media statement, the Universities Australia chief executive, Belinda Robson, said: ‘Enough is enough. Universities and their students have already done more than their fair share of Budget repair’.
Robson’s comments came on the back of a report issued by Universities Australia, which argued that universities do not have capacity to absorb further cuts. ‘In this context, it is difficult to justify further cuts that would affect student affordability and put at risk the quality of education and research on which Australia’s prosperity depends’, Robson said.
The report was released just one week after the ANU announced further budget cuts to the School of Culture, Language and History, revealing 15 jobs were in the firing line.
The cuts to the School reflect a worrying trend in the effects of continued budget squeezes on University operations. Of substantial concern to academics contacted by the media is the ANU’s continued downscaling of expensive, but key strategic subjects, such as Asian Languages, which the ANU has long had a niche in teaching.
In her statement, Robson outlined her analysis had revealed that universities have footed much of the budget repair bill, suffering over $3.9 billion in cuts since 2011.
This view was shared by an ANU spokesman, who told Woroni: ‘Universities and students have made a major contribution to the task of Budget repair over the past five years’.
‘We believe that ongoing government support for education and research is a crucial investment for Australia,’ the spokesman said.
The cuts have already had a significant impact on student wellbeing since 2011, including the key areas of equitable access to university and curriculum breadth, something which particularly concerned federal member for Canberra, Gai Brodtmann.
Brodtmann told Woroni that she had concerns for student equity following the cuts. ‘Ripping funding away from higher education is ripping opportunities away from the future leaders of our country’.
Brodtmann said that students have had to shoulder a disproportionate amount of the budget repair bill.
‘It’s unfair on those students who want to get the most out of their study, that the Turnbull Government is delivering cuts to universities and slapping the students with higher fees,’ she said.
The report outlined that $1.41 billion of the funding cuts had come from student start up scholarships, which form a key pillar in achieving student equity by providing students with a loan to help cover the costs of starting university.
Brodtmann said that continual cuts to university funding was having a disproportionately negative burden on lower SES students. ‘[Under the Labor Government of 2007 – 2013], more than 36,000 extra students from low income families were able to get into university. The government should not look at programs like these as a black hole in the budget, but as an investment in our future,’ Brodtmann told Woroni.
This sentiment was echoed by Jillian Molloy, an ANU student and NUS Welfare Officer. ‘Consecutive years of budget cuts to higher education and welfare sectors have made the university experience even more difficult and inaccessible for students,’ Molloy told Woroni.
Molloy expressed her fears that flagged measures in this year’s budget, including a proposed lowering of the earnings threshold at which students pay back their HECS debt to $42,000, ‘will only add to the stress that students currently face.’ She added that continued cuts to higher education and welfare are ‘locking out more and more students.’
The analysis also revealed that funding has risen by less than one per cent per year from 2009 to 2015 in real terms, with indexed budget cuts from 2018 meaning that funding increases will cease to rise at all.
The report comes after a January submission by Universities Australia which outlined that there was ‘no defensible case’ to further cut university funding, given the heavy lifting that the sector has endured.
The education minister, Simon Birmingham, remained tight-lipped about potential changes to university funding in the May 9 Budget, however, reports outline that a proposed 20 per cent cut to university course funding has been abandoned.
Interviewed on Sky News, Senator Birmingham revealed his view that ‘universities would have to live within the budget settings’.
The Group of Eight chief executive, Vicki Thomson, echoed Ms Robson’s sentiments: ‘It’s true that universities are free at the point of entry, but we want to make sure students have the best opportunities while they’re there, and funding cuts put that at risk.’